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As pandemic drags on, 17 percent of seniors say they feel more isolated this year than last

In all 50 states, older women were more likely than older men to report experiencing depression, stress, or other emotional problems.

The Senior List Team | Last Updated, Jan 10, 2022

While the pandemic has taken its toll in human lives, it’s also posed a unique challenge when it comes to mental health. Particularly for older adults, who are at a higher risk of serious illness due to Covid-19, the past 18 months have been isolating and depressing for many people.

At the Senior List, we’ve been tracking changes in the mental health of older Americans since the start of the pandemic:

One year after our last study, we wanted to see how senior Americans were faring since the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, and find out where in the nation seniors were most impacted. In addition to our own research, for this report we also integrated new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Together, this reveals nationwide variations in mental health conditions among older Americans, especially between women and men.

Key findings:

  • Nearly one in five older adults reported feeling more lonely since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Two in three older adults say they feel similar levels of loneliness this year compared to last year.
  • Exercise has the biggest impact on how older adults rate their mental health, according to our research, followed by daily in-person interaction with people outside their household.
  • Michigan has the highest percentage of seniors who reported feeling stress, depression or other emotional issues (27.3 percent), while Louisiana is close behind (27.1 percent). Illinois has the lowest rate (about 15 percent).
  • In every state, older women are more likely than older men to report that they’d had bad mental health days where they felt stress or depression. The difference is greatest in Louisiana, where women average 2.2 more days than men each month.

Is Mental Health Improving for Older Adults?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have regularly asked older adults to share how their mental health has been affected by the pandemic, including whether it’s increased their feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness.

Our research found that in the early stages of the pandemic, March 2020, nearly one in five older adults reported feeling more lonely since the Covid-19 pandemic began. But our latest research indicates that seniors are feeling slightly less lonely as 2021 comes to a close, though that doesn’t mean that this group is in the clear when it comes to mental health.

How does your feeling of loneliness compare to your feelings from a year ago?
I feel more lonely now 17%
I feel less lonely now 16%
I feel the same as I did last year 67%

In December 2020, seniors rated their feelings of loneliness at 29 on a 100-point scale, and today that number is just 20 out of 100. This shows marginal improvement, but for many older adults, there is still a long way to go.

On a scale of 1-100, how would you describe your feelings of loneliness, with 100 being the loneliest? December 2020 December 2021
All adults 60+ 29 20
Women 30 21
Men 27 18
People 60+ who live alone 37 30
People 60+ who live with others 25 15

However, those who live alone are still most likely to report feeling lonely — rating their loneliness at 30 out of 100. Notably, this group is also more likely to report more severe feelings of depression and anxiety than seniors overall, though the differences are less dramatic, and women who live alone tend to rate their mental health as worse off than men.

On a scale of 1-100, how would you describe your feelings of depression and anxiety, with 100 being the most anxious or depressed? Depression Anxiety
All adults 60+ 20 23
All who live alone 26 28
Women who live alone 29 33
Men who live alone 21 22

Among factors that may help mitigate poor mental health of seniors, exercise and daily in-person interaction with people outside the household had the strongest effects. Daily online interactions may have a neutral or even negative impact.

Those who live alone and have daily online interaction with others have the highest ratings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, while those who live alone and exercise at least a few times a week have the lowest.

Mental health ratings for older adults, 1-100 (with 100 being most severe)

On a scale of 1-100, how would you describe your feelings of depression and anxiety, with 100 being the most anxious or depressed? Depression Anxiety
All who live alone 26 28
Daily online interaction (live alone) 28 30
Daily in-person interaction (live alone) 20 25
Physically active 1-2 times per week 23 25
Physically active three or more times per week 17 20

States With Highest and Lowest Rates of Depression and Stress

Mental health is a key component of overall health for people of all ages. Research has linked the emotional toll of the pandemic to a decline in mental health. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that between January and June 2019, only 11 percent of U.S. adults said they had anxiety or depression symptoms in the previous six months; by January 2021, that figure had surged to 41 percent.1

Our analysis of the CDC’s BRFSS data reveals that in 2020, almost 23 percent of older adults said they had experienced at least one bad mental health day in the last month, meaning they had experienced stress, depression, or emotional issues. The number of people with bad mental health varied by state, from a high of about 27 percent of older adults in Michigan reporting at least one day of stress or depression to a low of about 15 percent in Illinois.

While Michigan had the highest rate of seniors with poor mental health in 2020, Louisiana was a close second, with the two states separated by just a few percentage points.

States with highest percentage States with lowest percentage

Michigan

27.3%

Illinois

14.8%

Louisiana

27.1%

South Dakota

17.6%

Washington

27.0%

Virginia

19.0%

California

26.5%

North Dakota

19.4%

Nevada

26.5%

North Carolina

19.6%
Wyoming 19.6%

Overall, the number of older adults reporting feelings of stress or depression over the course of a month rose slightly between 2019 and 2020, though some states saw bigger increases. In 2020, an average of 23 percent of older adults said they’d felt depressed or stressed in the past month, compared to 22 percent in 2019.

But more than half of states saw an increase in this rate, though it’s important to note that because these figures are self-reported by individual participants, a state’s rate can vary quite a bit from year to year.

Older Women Bearing the Brunt of the Crisis

In every state, older women report stress, depression, or other emotional issues at higher rates than older men. And on average, older women report having just under three bad mental health days per month compared to just under two for men. This may be due in part to the increased economic and relational stressors that fell onto women’s shoulders during the COVID-19 pandemic.2

An American Psychological Association study found that women are more likely than men to say their stress levels have increased, and they’re more likely to notice physical symptoms of stress.3

The most pronounced difference is in Louisiana, where the average older woman has two more days per month with mental health struggles than the average older man. Nevada and West Virginia women reported 1.8 more poor mental health days than older men in those states. Women and men were most similar in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Florida.

Lifestyle Habits to Improve Mental Health

Although the last few months have been very difficult for many, there are ways for older adults to improve and protect their mental health.

Exercise regularly

In addition to being good for your overall health, regular exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mental health, both in our survey and in other research. Regular exercise can help individuals manage or even prevent certain health issues, including heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and it’s associated with lower rates of depression.

That doesn’t mean you need to run a 5K every morning, as even normal everyday activities like walking or doing yard work can help keep you physically fit. For older adults, four types of exercise are recommended — endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Here are some tips on incorporating all four types into your life.

Build community connections

We’ve already touched on the increasing isolation from Covid-19 and its impact on the mental health of the nation. Those over 65, particularly if they are retired and/or living alone, are at high risk of negative health impacts.4 These include higher rates of dementia and other medical conditions.

Maintaining an active social life is just as important as being physically active as we age. Scheduling (safe) visits with friends and family can help lower feelings of isolation, and many older adults use this period in their lives to focus on causes that are important to them.

AmeriCorps senior volunteers can help connect you with organizations that need a helping hand in your community. Other ways of building community connections can include running for local office, taking classes at a nearby library or community college, or spending a few hours a week at a part-time job.

Get regular medical care

Preventive care is often the key to remaining healthy into old age, and Medicare, the federal health insurance program that covers older adults, has many resources to help people access preventive care like screenings, counseling, flu shots, and more. Your doctor can also offer advice and referrals if you are concerned about your mental health.

Remember that mental health is a key component of your overall health. Depression can be common for older adults, but there is no reason to live with intrusive or depressive thoughts. Find mental health services near you.

Reach out for help

If you are in emotional distress or are concerned about the mental health of a loved one, you are not alone. Call the SAMHSA National Helpline at any time to get immediate assistance, referrals, and advice, or find a directory of resources at the National Institute of Mental Health’s website.

Conclusion

More older Americans are reporting having dealt with poor mental health, and older women are much more likely to feel that they are struggling mentally than men. And while the pandemic undoubtedly plays a role, there are many tools and resources for older adults to ensure they are coping emotionally into their golden years.

About Our Data

In December 2021 we conducted an online survey of 500 Americans aged 60 and older regarding their feelings of isolation and mental health condition. We compared these results to a similar study of different participants conducted in December 2021.

We also collected public data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a “system of health-related telephone surveys that collect state data about U.S. residents regarding their health-related risk behaviors, chronic health conditions, and use of preventive services.” Respondents were asked how many days in the past 30 days they’d experienced stress, depression, or other emotional problems. This was how researchers defined a poor mental health day. Data analyzed was reported from 2019 to 2020 (the most recent reports). 2019 data on mental health was not available for New Jersey.

References

  1. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/
  2. https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/issue-brief/women-work-and-family-during-covid-19-findings-from-the-kff-womens-health-survey/
  3. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2010/gender-stress
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html